June 2, 2004
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Fear Factor Lifespan (2.16.04) - Being a scaredy cat all the time might do a body more harm than good.

Stress Changes Your Brain (6.24.03) - We all know that stress is bad for us. Now neuroscientists say chronic stress can actually change parts of our brains.


"Risky Business: How your brain weighs the odds of disaster" - take this self-test in Discover magazine

Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You by David Ropeik; George Gray

The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things by Barry Glassner

Leading causes of death in the U.S. in 2001 - NCHS

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We may have nothing to fear but fear itself. But, as this ScienCentral News video reports, even that can be deadly.

Fear vs. Fact

Roman Kyzyk was standing on his Brooklyn brownstone's rooftop with a clear view of the World Trade Center when the second plane hit the second tower on September 11th, 2001. Ever since he then he has been unable to fly.

"I was constrained and disabled by this," he says. "I had an incident where I literally was on a plane, and I was sitting in the middle seat in the back of the aircraft, and I was overwhelmed. I literally had to get off and leave the plane before take-off, before they closed the doors, because it was too difficult for me to be able to tolerate it."

Kyzyk knows that, statistically, flying isn't actually very dangerous. But nearly three years later he's still unable to fly anywhere and he's in cognitive behavioral therapy to try to remedy that. His psychologist says his predicament is a common one.

"People will come in and say, 'You know doc, I know this is not rational, but I just can't help it,'" says Robert Reiner, executive director of Behavioral Associates. Reiner says the body's fight-or flight response is very primitive, and can lead to phobias. "Phobias develop because people don't allow themselves to experience relaxing when they're in the situation, and typically avoid or escape that situation," he says. "The brain is saying, 'You know, this thing must be dangerous.' So phobias strengthen over time."

image: ABC News
But do we fear the right things? In the three months after September 11th, there were 353 more traffic deaths than average for those months in the last five years, because more people than usual chose driving over flying. But mile for mile, driving 37 times more dangerous than flying.

"There's a lot of recent research that shows that people tend to intuitively fear the wrong things," says David Myers, a psychology professor at Hope College and author of Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. In the December 2001 issue of the American Psychological Society Observer, Myers predicted what turned out to become true: "I reasoned that if, after 9/11, people were flying 20 percent less, and driving half those un-flown miles, that we could project that several hundred additional traffic accident deaths would result from 9/11."

Myers says it's common for people to fear things that are statistically improbable. "Our intuitive fears are based in part on what our ancestral history prepares us to fear," Myers says. "We fear what takes life immediately, and thus we tend not to fear smoking, which has an effect over a very long period of time. We fear things we can't control, so we're more afraid on planes where we're 'helpless' than we are behind the wheel of a car where we're 'in control'. We fear what's vividly available in our memories, and thus, dramatic forms of death that have very real, enduring images in our minds—such as the planes going into those towers on 9/11—have a way of ruling our mind. Statistics, we are aware of them, but they don't affect us as nearly as much as vivid images."

The April 2004 issue of Psychological Science contains a commentary by Gerd Gigerenzer, who calls those excess traffic deaths "the price Americans paid for trying to avoid the risk of flying," noting that number of the extra traffic deaths exceeded the number of people inside the four planes hijacked on 9/11. Gigerenzer, director of the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany, says this stems from our natural avoidance of "dread risks, that is, low-probability, high-consequence events." Myers agrees.

"We tend to fear ways in which people die dramatically in bunches rather than undramatically one by one," explains Myers. "Thus we fear flying and terrorists much more than we fear poison, which killed 5,000 people in the United States last year, or guns, which killed 30,000, or smoking, which killed more than 400,000 in United States last year—but slowly, undramatically, one by one."

While Myers knows this is only natural, he recommends rational thought to combat it. "None of us is exempt from these principles that drive human behavior. But yet, I think, if we're to think smart, it really does help to think rationally about what claims human lives and what puts lives at risk in the future."

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